On days like these, Boggel hides under the counter. His customers are arguing about whether President Booma will resign or be sacked – and he knows it’ll make no difference. Instead, he allows himself to think back to remember a time when politics didn’t matter so much. He seldom does this, you have to understand, because it hurts so much. But today, because it is December and because it’s almost Christmas, he can’t stop the memories from rising to the surface. There were Chrismases – back then – etched into his very being, into his soul, and he can still not answer the Big Question: what if…?
He gets up, tells Vetfaan to take over his duties and walks out into the sunshine.
“What’s with him?”
“Mary Mitchell, Servaas. He gets like this at Christmas time, every year.” Gertruida – who knows everything – watches as the bent little man sits down on the bench in front of the church. “He won’t be himself for a few days.”
They had sneaked out of the orphanage to their ‘secret’ place, which wasn’t so secret at all. It was a flat stone next to the small hill outside Grootdrink. Hills in this area aren’t impressive: they’re mere elevations dotted on the flat surface of the district, covered with a few sun-burnt rocks and small shrubs. Still, their spot afforded an endless view over the veld, which in those days wasn’t marred by pylons and telephone poles,
Boggel remembers these hills well: he always liken them with his life: flat, uninteresting, unremarkable; a few moments of happiness scorched and shrivelled by the unfairness of life. Or Love, come to think of it…
“I wanted to talk to you,” she said, looking uncertain, “about us.”
Boggel shifted his position so he can see her eyes. There was no mistaking the pain. She had just returned from a weekend visit to her parent’s home – which explained her need to be alone with him. Boggel always listened without commenting; he never condemned or judged…even though he had the impression she never told him the whole truth. Not entirely. She’d allude to the time spent at home as unbearable; describing the time spent there as ‘hell‘ and ‘never-ending‘, but always refrained from providing details. It was only later – much later – that he finally understood how dark and terrible her ‘hell’ had been.
“Boggel?” The little frown between her eyes deepened. “What do you think about Love? I mean,” she hesitated, biting her lip, “is there such a thing? People talk about it so much, but I don’t know…”
He was sixteen; she, a year younger. He knew no life outside the orphanage. She had her weekends at home. They both had never been outside the Grootdrink district.
“Yes,” he said, “because the Bible tells me so.” He sang the last words on the familiar melody, trying to make light of the moment.
“Oh, Boggel… The Bible tells us we have a Father in Heaven. He’s supposed to look after us. When we pray to Him, He’ll protect us. And you know what? I don’t see that happening a great deal. It’s more like He…well, He’s forgotten about us. Maybe Grootdrink is just too small. Maybe He’s busy elsewhere. But He seems so…distant.” She managed a wobbly smile. “You’re actually confirming my question, Boggel. Love. God. Do they exist?”
Boggel wanted to tell her yes, love exists. Yes, because I love you. But he was sixteen and didn’t have the courage. Or maybe he was wise beyond his years, knowing that such a statement would drive a damaging wedge between them at that time. Whatever happened during her weekends at home, this was not the time to make romantic advances.
“I..well, I suppose love and God are as real as you wish them to be, Mary. Maybe it’s the same as believing. Either you do, or you don’t. Not much grey in those concepts at all.”
At a certain stage in Life, young people are terribly clever. They have the answers to every question ever asked. The horizon is endless, the possibilities without boundaries. Then we grow up, get knocked around a little, and realise we know so little – so very, very little. And then we bandage the wounds caused by our ignorance and start closing doors. That’s when when we start living in little boxes, because we bleed less in those.
“And you, Boggel? Do you believe in Love?”
He nodded. At that moment a small herd of springbok appeared from behind some rocks some distance away, grazing peacefully.
“How long have we come here, to this very place, to chat?” He saw that the question had startled her.
“Oh…I don’t know? Seems like forever.”
“…And this is the first time we’ve seen some springbok while we’re sitting here.” He smiled at her questioning look. “What I’m trying to say, is that Love is like this. You can look for it everywhere and never find it. And one day, out of the blue, it finds you. That’s what makes it so precious, I guess.”
She remained silent for a long time, staring at the little herd.
“We’ll always be friends, won’t we?”
This time it was Boggel’s turn to be caught off guard. Friends? He had hoped for more, much more… But at that stage he didn’t understand her need for friendship was bigger than her need for a romantic liaison. She needed trust and loyalty and respect and kindness more than a clumsy kiss on the cheek. She’d become comfortable with Love later – but it had to germinate and sprout leaves in the rich soil of friendship first.
“Of course,” he said, feeling hurt.
He got up abruptly, held out his hand, and walked her back to the orphanage in silence.
“Pondering the past, Boggel?” Oudoom’s question shatters his reverie and he moves to one side so that the clergyman can sit down as well.
“You know,” Oudoom says this casually, as if they’ve been chatting all afternoon, “I told Mevrou just the other day; I said it’s sometimes difficult to believe in things. When Vetfaan came back from the war, he questioned God. I think he stopped believing for a while.” Oudoom falls silent as he watches a dove pecking at the side of the road. “And I understood that. I think we all get to a point in our lives when things just don’t make sense.”
Boggel twists his neck to look up at the pastor. “But why, Oudoom? Who don’t things work out? It’s as if God adds misery to our lives on purpose. You know about my past, Oudoom. Why can’t I have somebody in my life? I’m not asking for much…just a friendly smile, a cup of coffee in the morning, a hug at night? Why must I feel so…lonely?”
Oudoom shakes his head, causing the dove to flutter off.
“It’s Christmas-time, Boggel. For some, it’s a time of joy and celebration. For others these days hold an incredible amount of pain…even depression. It’s as if Christmas acts like a prism – allowing our memories to accentuate specific emotions we live with each day. So, on Christmas, we become aware of a special bit of the spectrum – causing laughter for some, tears for others.
“What is important, is that these memories always involve other people. It’s about acts that mattered in the past.” He lays an arm across the skewed shoulders. “So, Boggel, you have to answer a question: when you think back, are you ashamed of what you did? Or did you contribute to help somebody along on the path of Life?”
Oudoom feels the shoulders begin to shake. A large tear falls from Boggel’s cheek but he makes no effort to dry his eyes. Oh Lord, Oudoom looks up at the sky, why is it so hard?
“Next year, Boggel. Maybe next year things will be better.” What else can I say?
“You think so, Oudoom?” Boggel sniffs loudly. “That’s what I thought last year as well…”
“God’s time isn’t our time, Boggel. His plans aren’t our plans, either. But you’ve got us, at least.”
Boggel thinks the old clergyman is using the royal plural but when he looks up, he sees the whole town gathered around them. A small figure forces her way to the front.
“Mister Boggel, sir, we’ve baked a special pudding. Mister Stevens and I…well, we thought to give it to you on Christmas, but maybe today is more appropriate.” Miss Kenton! Boggel can’t even remember when last she and Mister Stevens visited Rolbos. “And there’s a letter, sir. Nice feminine handwriting, if I may say so. It arrived on the farm this morning, and Mister Stevens insisted we bring it to you immediately.” She smiles sweetly as she places the Christmas pudding and the letter next to Boggel on the bench.
“We had given up hope of receiving an answer to Missus Fanny’s letters, sir.” Mister Stevens spreads his arms wide. “But yes, here it is. An answer. I suppose you’d want to read it, won’t you, sir?”
The little crowd moves forwards an inch, curiosity forcing them nearer.